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Attending Parties in the Year of Mourning

As I began composing this post, I started to realize that I've been posting more often about Jewish issues than I ever expected to. Not sure if this means anything significant, but at some point I really ought to get back to things like science fiction and the Mets. Ahem.

What's prompting today's reflection is a few things. Tomorrow is Tisha B'Av, one of the most solemn days on the Hebrew calendar, and Wednesday, July 25, is the six-month anniversary of my Mom's death going by the Gregorian calendar. (On the Hebrew calendar, the six-month mark was 6 Av, which fell on this past Saturday.) Tisha B'Av itself marks the culmination of a period of national mourning, during which religious Jews tend to avoid scheduling weddings and other celebrations. After Tuesday, though, the restrictions will be over, and so a lot of celebrations will once again be taking place. Because of this, I've been thinking a lot about how someone in my current status under Jewish law is not supposed to attend parties.

To explain: during the year of mourning following a parent's death, there are certain restrictions one is supposed to place on one's activities. For example, one isn't supposed to attend live music performances. What I discovered right after Mom's death was that I wasn't in the mood to attend live music performances, and I'm still not; Mom's death seems to have had that effect on me.

And as I noted above, another thing one isn't supposed to do is attend parties or simchas (celebrations). However, there is a loophole, which is that if one is given a task or job to do for the celebration, then one is technically working the celebration and not attending solely to celebrate. (Also, if one's actual living comes out of attending parties, say as a party planner or a musician, one is allowed to attend.)

So, as in any year, I find myself invited to a variety of parties, and because of my status I've been dealing with them on a case-by-case basis. What I've tried to do this past year is strike a balance. Next week a woman I've known for a long time is celebrating her marriage with a party, and I was invited to attend. This is a simcha I dearly wish to be present at, so I made arrangements to be given a task to perform during the party. I also did something similar a while back to attend the engagement party for another friend. At the same time, however, I've tended to avoid parties that were unconnected to a specific celebration that meant something for a person.

Basically, if it's a life cycle event for someone I've known for a long time, I'm trying to find a task that allows me to attend; but if it's a casual party, and defined as such, I'm much more uncomfortable attending. And even in the first case, when I've been there, I've found myself feeling more out-of-place than usual. I actually left one party early because of my discomfort, even though I could justify my presence for a few reasons.

Is what I'm doing perfect? Probably not, but it's the best I can manage for the moment.


It sounds like a good system; I know it was hard for both my parents to navigate those issues in their years of mourning (they ended up not celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, which they'd been intending to do a double chai celebration for.)
The restriction about live music performances interests me very much; I was supposed to sing in a Christmas concert one year, about a month after I'd lost someone close to me, and I had to drop out during the dress rehearsal, the morning of, because my grief would not let me sing. Luckily, I was just part of a largish choral group.
Sounds to me like it's perfect for you, since clearly your emotional responses coincide pretty much with your decisions for the management of your social commitments. Taking care of yourself is part of what the year of mourning is about, and it sounds to me like you're doing just that.
Is what I'm doing perfect? Probably not, but it's the best I can manage for the moment.

Any deity that wants perfection from its worshippers should probably find someone other than humans to worship it.
I'm actually more concerned with other human beings judging my attempt as less than perfect. I'm not worried about my deity, who has a much better idea of what I'm going through than anyone else other than myself. :-)
Yeah ... I totally get that. I'm experimenting with my practice right now in a couple of ways, and I sometimes worry that others will see my decisions as policy-making when I might be merely trying something on. Judgement from God isn't a worry of mine; it's judgement from other humans that can be a concern.
We all make accommodations, I think.

During my year, I went to conventions, but avoided filking and parties. That first was particularly difficult. Technically, I could have gone to both on Shabbat, but I decided against it.

In the real world, I pretty much avoid weddings and such, but I didn't have anyone really close getting married. If I did, I'd have gone case-by-case, too.
My mom was upset that I chose to skip some family simchas during my mourning year, arguing that my dad wouldn't have wanted me to do that. You can be excused in advance from the obligation to refrain from simchas by a parent - the biblical command of kibbud ov v'aym (honoring your parents) trumps the minhagim (customs) of mourning.

But when I tried to get Mom to excuse me in her case, I ran into a problem. Typical dialog:

Me: Mom, the only way I can attend simchas for family during the year after you turn 120 is if you excuse me.

Mom: You do what you feel is right. I really didn't like that you skipped [family events](*), but I can't tell you what to do religiously.

Me: Actually Mom, you can. I can't decide not to skip family simcha's because it is what you would want me to do, but I can attend them if you tell me that that is what you want.

Mom: I've always said that religious observance is between a person and God. What you did wasn't what I would do, but you have to do what you think right.

Me: [Go away and pound head against the wall until next time].

The cycle was finally broken when my wife literally sat next to my mom and said "Mom, you have to say this to Larry, ok?" and literally dictated the words by which she absolved me of the obligation.

(*) I didn't choose to take advantage of the 'work at the event' loophole, I think because I wanted to actually work at the event and the family couldn't handle that. I did attend one wedding and then sat out in the hall during the wedding meal so that people could come over and say hello to me. It caused some friction, but was perceived as better than not attending at all.
As usual, Michael, it seems like you are making well-considered and respectful choices. No one should look askance if you are meeting your obligations to the best of your ability.

Chinese Buddhists have similar prohibitions during the year of mourning they observe. Theirs is taken in stages, being particularly strict during the first month or two, then some restrictions are lifted until the sixth month, when a few more are lifted for the duration. My wife is not an observant Buddhist, but felt that she had to follow the various stages of mourning when her father died. Among the restrictions was one that would have forced us to postpone our wedding (already scheduled to take place just inside the sixth month after her father died). Her mother absolutely forbade us from postponing, as she felt that Amy's father had been so involved in planning the wedding that he would not have approved of any delay in respect of his death. We went ahead, but a number of people on Amy's side would not attend, as they felt it would be inappropriate.

One of their prohibitions has to do with being strictly vegetarian for a period of time after the death (I forget now if it is two weeks or one month). I observed this along with Amy for both of her parents, even though we were not married when her father died, and I am not Buddhist. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Seems a reasonable compromise. Our social world is very different from when the mourning laws first developed. Even a century ago, it was common in Victorian society for individuals in mourning to wear black (or at least a black armband) for a year, avoid parties and other social events, and generally live a quiter life. Our modern society is much less tolerant of the idea of extended mourning.
What I discovered right after Mom's death was that I wasn't in the mood to attend live music performances, and I'm still not; Mom's death seems to have had that effect on me
As I understand it, that is the point of the restrictions. Or rather, the point is that a typical person who is genuinely in mourning would not want to do these things, and would need no law to forbid them.

The law exists, AIUI, for the case where, for one reason or another, a person is not grieving for his/her parent, and is in the mood to go out dancing and partying; out of respect for the parent, though, they should at least pretend to feel sorry that the parent is dead, and not do things in public that show how they really feel about it. (In the past month or two, two people on my LJ flist have posted that their parent had died, and explicitly refused to accept condolences; according to Jewish law this is forbidden - as RAH pointed out in Job: A Comedy of Justice, we are not commanded to love our parents but to respect them, which means pretending to love them even if we don't.)

In a case like yours, where you feel genuine grief, it seems to me that you can rely on your feelings as a guide for what you should and shouldn't do, and don't need a rule book. But as always CYLOR.
It sounds like you have come up with a thoughtful approach that works. I see nothing wrong with that.

December 2016

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